I’ve been re-reading Temple Grandin’s wonderful book, Animals in Translation, and it has some important things to say about ideology and abstraction. For those of you who don’t know Grandin, she is the top designer of animal handling facilities in the world, a PhD with over one hundred published papers in both biology and psychology, and autistic. She attributes her success to being ‘detail-oriented’, and claims that most people cannot see the problems she sees because they are too ‘abstractified.’ Interestingly, she, much as the British Idealists did, relates abstraction to ideology, and complains that, rather than plainly seeing the situation with which they are asked to deal, many of the people she encounters substitute an abstract, ideological view of the situation, thereby falsifying reality, often with bad results. She offers an example of a woman who owned a fair number of dogs. Some of the ‘pack’ she had created were naturally more dominant, and others more submissive. She was repeatedly advised that she had to accept this as a fact, since that is the way dogs are, and, for instance, always greet the more dominant dogs first when she came home. But, her mind captured by an ideology of equality, she refused to listen, with the outcome that the dominant dogs would attack the submissive ones for improperly taking ‘first dibs’ with the master, so that finally three of the dogs had to be put down.
Grandin discusses the constraints of biology upon animal nature at some length; in particular, she devotes many pages to how a simplified, abstract understanding of genetics can bring about radically undesirable results when applied. For example, the single-trait breeding of chickens, first for quick growth, then for lots of breast meat, and finally for the vitality not to collapse after growing so much meat so quickly, led to rapist/murderer roosters – the various traits being bred for did not exist in the simple isolation of an abstract genetic model, but interacted with the rest of chicken biology in unpredictable ways, so that the roosters produced by the three successive breeding efforts had often forgotten how to do the proper mating dance to seduce a hen, and wound up raping and killing the females when they wanted to mate.
How does this relate to ideology? Well, I have encountered people who contend that monogamy is ‘irrational,’ sexual possessiveness immoral, and that we ought to consciously work to eliminate these elements from human life. But Grandin notes that sexual possessiveness, across many species, seems to be strongly connected to taking great care for one’s offspring. The ideological conviction that such possessiveness is irrational ignores this basic biological fact; if this ideology ever holds full sway, the result after enough generations pass will be humans quite unlike ourselves, who have little interest in raising their children. Whether the human race would survive that change I have no idea, but it certainly is not what the ideologues intend; instead, they are seeing these traits in abstraction, like elements in a model, where they can pluck out any element that offends them without otherwise affecting the whole.
The grip of ideology is usually broken only by the force of reality shattering it. I recall, in particular, two experiences that had that sort of impact on me. One, suggested by John Goes in a previous thread, came about during my second stay in Switzerland. During my first trip I had fallen in love with the country, and had to go back. Spending more time there on trip two, I thought I was in the most naturally orderly and civic-minded place I had ever been – and, I realized, if the Swiss ever adopted the open border policy I had advocated until then, that place would be gone in a decade. Now, when I recently expressed some reservations about unrestricted immigration on a libertarian blog, I was immediately accused of being a ‘xenophobe.’ To anyone who knows I spent ten years playing in a reggae band, often finding myself to be the only native-born American in the club I was in, and who knows I am married to an immigrant, and so on, that accusation might seem unlikely. But consider the context that led me to change my mind – I was in a foreign country, enchanted by these foreigners culture, and was worried that too many people like me moving there might ruin things. That is a funny sort of xenophobia. But to preserve an ideological view, such name-calling is necessary, to prevent reality from intruding. I imagine the woman mentioned above with the dog pack thought of those pointing out that she was acting recklessly as ‘dog elitists,’ who were in favor of ‘oppression’ of the timid dogs by the more aggressive ones.
My second major breaking in of reality had to do with public school teachers. After my kids begged me to let them attend our local public school, I found that ideology had created in my mind a bogeyman public employee and that, try as I might, I couldn’t force the real public employees I was dealing with to conform to this taxpayer-sucking parasite monster. The actual teachers and administrators I dealt with were dedicated to their jobs and were focused on helping kids, not on draining the public coffers to feather their own nests.
Now, a non-ideological approach to issues like the above need not be blind to existing problems or deaf to every case for reform. The public schools in the US certainly do have many problems, and it would be good to fix them. Immigration restrictions are not a panacea, and bring with them serious civil liberty and humanitarian concerns. But to adopt a simplistic stance towards those situations based upon ‘principles’ that are in reality little more than slogans – “immigration control is xenophobic” or “the public schools are evil monopolies that brainwash our children” – is unlikely to produce improvement. Instead, the discussion of the problems is degraded, and the targets of the slogans usually wind up getting their backs up, closing their minds to even reasonable reforms.
Finally, let me assert once more that I don’t mean to be picking on libertarians here – some of my best friends are libertarians. But that happens to be the ideology to which I was committed, and, so, it is the easiest one for me to mine for examples. Indeed, everything I write here should be understood primarily as self-criticism, and only secondarily as directed at anyone else.
Which brings me to my final, final point. A while back, my friend Bob Murphy remarked that the fellow who had inspired him to abandon his former materialism had become “Gene the cranky.” I think I now understand better why that was so: I was going through a painful struggle between my attachment to everything I had built up tied to a particular ideology – my many good friends, my professional contacts, my public reputation, my sources of funding – and the acceptance of the facts that reality was forcing upon me. Sadly, all too often, it is easier to project any internal conflict outwards than to acknowledge what is really going on, and, thus, “Gene the cranky.” So, to those who were subjected to my crankiness, let me offer a blanket apology. (If you want a personal one, you will have to take a number.)